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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

Fremantle Art Centre - more than just Art

Live music, artists in residence, cultural events, exhibitions, a shop and café all in one place is convenient. When it is housed in beautiful historical buildings and grounds it is welcoming. This is Fremantle Art Centre. Open from 10am – 5pm 7 days a week, free admission (except when major artists perform). Located at 1 Finnerty Street, Fremantle, it is a pleasant five minute stroll from the train station and parking is available on the street.

(photo above courtesy of Wikipaedia, current view)

There are also ghost stories in abundance. It is said that it is one of the most active haunted places in the Southern Hemisphere. A fun sight caught my eye at one of the windows.

Fremantle Art Centre has a fascinating history, and was first built on a six acre grant by convict labourers in 1861 and opened in 1864 as the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum and Invalid depot. The neo Gothic sandstone buildings were restored and saved from demolition between 1958 and 1970. The Chairman of the National Trust of Great Britain in 1963 weighed in, writing “Don’t you let them demolish this building! It is the most marvellous example of colonial gothic architecture in Australia”.

Situated close to the Fremantle Jail, in the early days it was often used to house alcoholics, prostitutes and the elderly. Many of the people diagnosed then as Lunatics would be diagnosed as mentally ill nowadays. Even being poor was sometimes considered a crime to be locked away for.

In 1886 an extension of the building was contracted by Robert and Arthur Bunnings. The Perth brothers went on to found the Bunnings hardware stores, now all over Australia.

From 1890, during the gold rush days, it also was a convenient place to dump people addicted to opium smoking.

By 1900 there were 219 patients, often up to 20 inmates occupying a room averaging 2.7 x 2.3m.

From 1909 to 1940 it became a Woman's Home, housing the poor, elderly and unmarried mothers, children and prostitutes. They were relocated after it was infected by rats, termites and cockroaches in addition to poor sanitation and structural collapses. Not a very pleasant place to be.

In 1880 only 50% of Perth newborns survived, and midwife’s were a precious commodity in the colony. From 1910 to 1960 it was used as a maternity training school.

In 1942 there were hundreds of servicemen in Perth, and the buildings were allocated to servicemen to billet and work at.

1946 saw the building become used as the Fremantle Technical School.

Due to disrepair and degradation the centre was due to be demolished, but state funding allowed for restoration between 1958 and 1970.

From 1970 to the mid 80s, it was the Maritime Museum, and also from 1970 – 2009 it was the Fremantle History Museum.

From 1973 until current it is home for the Fremantle Arts Centre.

The year round program of day and some night classes includes:

· Art History

· Ceramics and Sculpture

· Creative Writing

· Design textiles and Craft

· Digital Media

· Drawing and Printmaking

· Jewellery

· Painting

· Performing Arts

· Summer and Christmas Specials

The leafy courtyards are inviting. The large trees offer great shade in summer and a great view of the buildings in the background in their leafless winter. The lush well-tended grass just begs you to sit or take off your shoes and feel the earth beneath you. There is often live music on Sundays, and the centre has been packed out when it hosts various well known singers and bands.

The café has a small indoor seating area with windows looking out into a lovely garden area, and outdoor seating under cover as well. Plants grow in abundance and it feels like home.

The staff were very friendly, and the coffee was wonderful. The premises are licensed with BP wine. Chairs and tables are also scattered around the outside of the building where you can relax and look at the outside of the centre buildings. The marvellous restored sandstone blocks are interesting in themselves. Some are weathered and worn and I speculated if they were the original 1861 blocks. It is hard to tell restored from original.

There are many art and Australian books for sale inside the Art Centre and there is the Found giftshop on the premises as well.

In the gift shop, I saw a marvellous steam punk type teapot. Too fragile to travel with and at $800, too fragile for my wallet. It was beautifully made.

Fremantle Art Centre will be a venue that I visit frequently, and hope to do some of their courses here during the year. Currently not being ran due to Covid-19. Their website gives a wealth of information at

Happy Travels!

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